When it comes to re-thinking the doctrine of the Atonement, many contemporary Christians are attracted to the work of literary theorist Rene Girard and his account of the “scapegoat mechanism.” In Girard’s telling, what the crucifixion narratives in the gospels do is reveal this mechanism whereby we kill the innocent to create social peace as the basis of much of our religion and culture. This unmasking of the scapegoat mechanism allows us to perceive the innocence of victims and to put an end to scapegoating. Part of what appeals about Girard’s account is that it seems to offer a way of thinking about the cross that avoids the implication that God in any sense required the sacrifice of Jesus.
However, the late William Placher, in an important article on the Atonement, offered some criticisms of Girard that still seem pretty telling to me:
Christians will naturally find such a brilliant scholar’s admiration of the gospel flattering, and Girard gets much right from a Christian point of view, from his insistence on the innocence of ritual victims to his call for a new kind of society based on mutual forgiveness. Yet he also breaks radically with most Christian interpretations. He repeatedly insists that nothing in the Gospels or Paul permits us to think of Christ as a sacrifice. The letter to the Hebrews, he believes, began the tragic wrong turn of Christian theology, for it falls back into thinking that it was somehow a good thing that Christ died, that the sacrifice of one victim really can redeem others—-just the kind of thinking whose fraudulence the gospel ought to have exposed once and for all. As a result, Girard thinks, Christians have continued the kind of society in which social cohesion is based on finding scapegoats—most notably and tragically of all singling out Jews as “Christ killers.”
But does Girard provide us with the kind of forgiveness that we really need? He assumes that once the Gospels have helped us see scapegoating for the fraud that it is we will never again participate in its rituals or believe in its myths. And he does not consider that we might retain some guilt and owe some penance for our evil past actions, even after we have turned away from scapegoating. He seems to assume that once we have understood the problem properly, it practically fixes itself.
The dominant Christian tradition has been less optimistic. At least since Augustine, Christian theologians have insisted that recognizing sin’s evil does not necessarily end its seductiveness; sometimes it can even increase it. Moreover, even if we do not continue making scapegoats and sacrificing victims, we have all, as Girard himself emphasizes, been complicit in such practices for much of our lives. Culture and religion in all previous forms rest upon them. Is it enough to say, “Oh, now I get it, and I won’t do it any more,” and go our way? Perhaps we can forgive other victimizers, and for the sake of breaking the cycle of violence we should forgive them. But can we simply declare ourselves to be innocent? Whatever its problems, the language of sacrifice which so disturbs Girard does speak to the condition of people who find themselves still falling into sin, and sense the depths of their need of forgiveness. Perhaps it deserves a closer look.
I think a lot of the truth in traditional theories of atonement–however much we may want to qualify or reinterpret them–is that there is a profound alienation between humanity and God and that simply revealing the fact of sin is insufficient to overcome it. This has always been the most potent criticism of “moral example” theories of atonement, and Girard’s theory as it stands looks like a more sophisticated version of this type of theory. For the other dominant tradition in atonement theory–that of “satisfaction” or “vicarious atonement”–the alienation between humanity and God (and its attendant guilt) is not something that we can repair on our own, even once we see what the problem is. This is why it requires God to step into the breach. But because it is a problem of human alienation from God, it is something that must be healed through human nature. Hence, following St. Anselm’s logic, the need for the God-man.